“They f*** you up, your mum and dad,” goes poet Philip Larkin’s much quoted line on how our psychological problems are often attributable to our parents. Now imagine how much more f***ked up you could be if your parents were notorious Nazis. Such is the topic of Chanoch Ze’evi’s documentary, which follows five descendents of Hitler’s closest lieutenants, exploring what effect their surnames and family baggage have had on their lives.
The question of hereditary guilt, or guilt by association, is an interesting one. Some of the subjects of the film were not even born during World War II; the others were young children. They were clearly no more personally responsible for concentration camp atrocities than you or I. And yet the huge weight of being a Goeth, Himmler, Goering, Hoess or Frank has left an indelible imprint on their psyches.
All five have made efforts to escape their ancestry, including changing their surname, emigrating far from Germany and learning foreign languages to avoid having to speak German abroad. Goering’s great-niece and -nephew both opted to be sterilized, to “cut the line” and stem the “bad blood”.
Some have thrown themselves into atoning for the sins of the father. Niklas Frank, son of the governor of occupied Poland, tours schools – anywhere he is invited – to denounce his parents in the harshest terms and warn German audiences of the dangers of another authoritarian regime coming to power. Rainer Hoess, grandson of Rudolf, first commander of Auschwitz, travels to the camp in the company of the descendent of survivors, Israeli journalist Eldad Beck. There he bravely addresses a room full mostly of Israeli teenagers, some of whose relatives were murdered on the site, and comes face to face with a former inmate. It is an immensely moving scene, though his companion Beck cautions against a false sense of closure.
The psychology is complex. The movie examines some of the subjects’ struggles to reconcile the horrific acts perpetrated by their Nazi forebears with fond childhood memories or close family bonds. Rainer Hoess obsesses over photos taken at his father’s family home, which bordered Auschwitz: one shows his father playing happily in a large toy plane made by the doomed prisoners; another, the gate that separates the pleasant-looking cottage from the unspeakable horrors of the crematoria (the seldom-heard use of that word in the plural form a chilling reminder of the scale of the killing). All of the subjects report riven family relationships, as other relatives retreated into denial or resented younger members speaking out.
There are very sad stories. Monika Goeth had been brought up to believe her father, commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, had treated the inmates in his “care” well. She is disabused of that notion when a casual mention of her parentage provokes an acquaintance to turn white and start screaming, “That murderer! That pig!” She later goes to see Schindler’s List at the cinema, where Ralph Fiennes’ memorable performance as the psychopathic commandant sends her into shock.
Nearly 70 years have now passed since the end of World War II, and films on the subject often focus on the victims in a purely historical sense. This exceptional documentary, with its five very ordinary-looking, modern Europeans, is a powerful and poignant reminder that the suffering caused in those years has cascaded in time and place. While the bunker suicides and Nuremberg hangings may have marked the end of some Nazis, the painful legacy of Nazism has yet to die.
Director: Chanoch Ze’evi
Pictured: Monika Goeth